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REVIEW: The face behind the face: Worthy Fights by Leon Panetta

REVIEW: The face behind the face: Worthy Fights by Leon Panetta

READERS interested in global concerns are used to perusing the biographies of presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In order to obtain a more nuanced sense of the operations of politics and government, it is vital to immerse oneself in texts by those who influence ultimate figureheads — men and women who count as the ‘face behind the face’ so to speak. Leon Panetta is one such individual. Hailing from Monterey, California, where his working-class Italian immigrant parents established a successful set of restaurants, the young Panetta displayed leadership qualities from the time he attended high school. A traditional and domestic-minded young man, he chose to enroll at a university close to home (Santa Clara), rather than head out to a swanky Ivy League school. Armed with some Reserve Officers Training Corps training and a law degree, he worked as an aide to Senator Thomas Kuchel, “a good, principled, and moderate man, unafraid of being attacked,” whom Panetta credits with his genuine mentoring. Although Kuchel’s career was blighted by accusations that he was homosexual (such smears were far more serious in the ’60s and ’70s than they are today), one gets the impression that Panetta’s much later work on removing the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ ban on gays may have been influenced by this issue.

In his memoir Worthy Fights the Italian-American who went on to become a Democratic Congressman for California, speaks frankly about how he ran afoul of the conservative Nixon administration for championing the cause of minority desegregation. He writes about his endeavours to prevent oil drilling on the lovely California coastline (at which he succeeded). Panetta also helped convert the military settlement of Fort Ord into an educational institution, California State University at Monterey Bay, which now houses the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute of Public Policy. From the first half of the book it is evident that Panetta was a self-made, externally hardened, and undeniably focused government servant, who zealously espoused causes for which he had a soft spot, such as health, welfare, and education.

Impressed by the congressman’s forthright nature fairly early in his presidency, Bill Clinton requested Panetta’s views on how the US president’s office might be made to run more efficiently. In his memoir Panetta notes that one of the major weaknesses of Clinton’s first chief of staff, Mack McLarty, was that he found it difficult to say no to anyone. Panetta replaced McLarty in this position, and ran the president’s office with an iron fist, denying many individuals access to the top brass if he did not feel that their issues were important enough for Clinton’s attention. Fundamentally money conscious, he was instrumental in his capacity as director of the office of management and budget, in helping Clinton balance the national budget in the late 1990s. Panetta’s views on the federal shutdown, and Clinton’s adamant refusal to give in to being bullied by Congress make up an interesting and candid portion of the middle section of the book. He also writes generously about Rahm Emanuel’s incisive political skills, although he does not omit to mention that Obama’s chief of staff had a seriously foul mouth, even by Washington standards. However, it was with the advent of the Obama administration that Panetta himself rocketed to governmental fame by being made director of the CIA (DCIA).

It was in his capacity as DCIA that Panetta masterminded the operation that apparently led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Chapter 13, ‘Go In and Get Bin Laden’ will most likely interest Pakistanis the most. It is in this section that the former DCIA describes the painstaking efforts made by the CIA to determine Bin Laden’s location, and then work out a plan by means of which the target could be destroyed with the minimum loss of life to others surrounding him. Panetta crucially notes that Vice President Joe Biden was reluctant to proceed with the matter until sounder human (as opposed to mechanical) information could be acquired by the Agency, but the president, Barack Obama, was hell-bent on striking while the iron was hot. The account itself is rather gripping, but it obviously suffers from being one-sided.

Although Panetta speaks about the then Pakistani ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha with the respect the latter deserved, very little information on Pasha’s own thoughts and background on this matter are provided. Far more time in the book is spent on Panetta detailing his relationship with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, and there is an especially intriguing section on how the US Congress approved funding for Iron Dome — a programme by means of which the Israelis could effectively repel Hamas’s air attacks. Panetta writes engagingly about his trips abroad and his meetings with people as diverse as the head of Mabahith (the Saudi intelligence service) and the Pope (who matters to him on a personal level). In spite of the cruel exigencies of his job, Panetta claims that he is a devout Catholic, reaching for his rosary remarkably frequently to say a set of Hail Marys.

After his term as DCIA, Panetta landed the coveted post of secretary of defence, and much of the latter half of the book dwells on his general stance towards terrorism, and the US government’s efforts to combat it. The sections on Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are notable — the president overruled Panetta’s desire to leave a major peacekeeping force in Iraq. Towards the tail-end of his career, Panetta took an active interest in working on stronger policy in the military against sexual harassment and assault. In aggregate, Panetta comes across as a personally soft-hearted but professionally hard-headed individual, whose greatest political strength was tenacity. This trait enabled him not only to survive, but to progress career-wise on a decidedly upward trajectory. He may not go down in history as a great man, but there is no question that he will be regarded as an important one.

Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace

By Leon Panetta with Jim Newton

Penguin, New York

ISBN 978-1594205965


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